The Rise of Superman

The Rise of Superman

In 2007 writer Steven Kotler published a book about surfing called West of Jesus: Surfing, Science and the Origins of Belief. It was an unusual tale the way the Wizard of Oz is an unusual tale. The former GQ Editor-at-Large was suffering from Lyme Disease and it had gone undiagnosed long enough to wreck most of his life. Eventually, he’s diagnosed and with the aid of some powerful pharmaceuticals he begins to recover. The story takes its fateful turn when a friend arrives one day to get him off the couch and take him surfing. While the surfing leaves him so fatigued he can barely move for a week afterward, repeat trips to the beach spur his progress. He’s convinced that the activity makes him better, even as it wears him out. The why becomes the quest that drives the book. IMG_8991 What Kotler encounters is the concept of the flow state. The term was coined by Czech psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi as a way to identify periods of profound concentration. But Kotler wasn’t satisfied with a cool pop psych term. Something was happening when he was surfing, something beyond his ken. Among the effects he noted was the way time slowed as he turned. He began chasing every lead he could find, everything from the runner’s high to how hallucinogens led to the development of SSRIs.

West of Jesus was the first work to aggregate all the neuroscience known about the effects of flow states. The full suite of neurochemicals released form the most powerful mind-altering state known to man. And they are the domain of the endurance athlete. West of Jesus turned out to be the beginning of the quest, not the end of it.

Kotler’s next book, A Small, Furry Prayer investigated, among other things, flow states in animals.

After reading West of Jesus I reached out to Kotler to discuss his research. I was curious about the intersection between cycling and flow. While I’d heard of flow prior to reading West of Jesus, up to that point it was just another phrase, like “in the zone.” Once I knew there was a biological basis for this thing I’d been chasing my whole life, I was able to reframe my quest. Now I had a reason for why I loved descending so much. I dropped down the canyon roads of the Santa Monicas instead of taking SSRIs.

One day I called him with an idea. What if adrenalin junkies weren’t addicted to adrenalin at all, but were actually chasing flow states? What if we had them all wrong? IMG_8992 Turns out, Steven was way ahead of me. He was working on a feature for Playboy magazine that explored extreme athletes, looking at them as high priests of flow. That feature became the backbone of his latest book, The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance. The Rise of Superman is a tour de force. It is the work of a subject master expert in his element. While Steven didn’t conduct the research that he details in Rise, he is arguably the subject’s best expert because no one is better versed on all the known research into flow states. He is the single greatest aggregation point for information on the subject.

While I’ve written about flow states previously here, here and here, this is probably a good point to define just what constitutes a flow state, at least in broad strokes. There are six major components to a flow state as defined by Csikszentmihalyi. They are:

  1. Intense and focused concentration
  2. Merging of action and awareness
  3. Loss of reflective self-consciousness (the “I” disappears)
  4. A sense of personal control, mastery
  5. A distortion of time
  6. Experience the activity as intrinsically rewarding

This sixth point is arguably the defining characteristic of flow; it’s autotelic. That is, it’s a feedback loop of fulfillment. Flow makes you feel so good—not just blankly, but about yourself—that no one needs to offer you any incentive to go there. Flow is the at the root of the surf bum, the dirtbag climber, the itinerant bike racer.

Rise examines some of the most extreme of extreme athletes: skateboarder Danny Way who launched over the Great Wall of China, Laird Hamilton who redefined big wave surfing, and big wall climber Dean Potter, among others. If choosing such subjects seems sensationalistic, Kotler has a deeper purpose. The point of flow isn’t to chase some random hedonic pleasure, but to achieve a state where we are at our best, where we tap into the furthest reach of our abilities, where we have no choice but to execute with our best judgement. For extreme athletes, as Kotler notes repeatedly, these situations are flow or die.

One of the more startling revelations I encountered in the book was that researchers had determined the requisite increase in challenge to keep achieving flow. This requires a little backing up as well. We enter flow states when we face a challenge that takes us to the limit of our ability. If the challenge outstrips our ability (trying to ride a World Cup downhill course on your road bike), we experience anxiety. On the other hand, if the challenge is insufficient (riding an adult tricycle on flat ground), we experience boredom. The problem here is that last year’s whoa becomes this year’s easy-peasy-lemon-squeezy.

So what sort of challenge do you have to chase to get back into flow? Just four percent harder. That’s all. One needn’t fear that chasing flow means cruising for mortal danger, but it explains how if you add enough 4 percent challenges together, a kid can go from riding his skateboard off a curb to pulling a backflip in a pool two years later.

In examining the achievements of extreme athletes Kotler is able to describe altered states of consciousness and highlight the power that flow can have in our lives. His work is counterintuitive here. Few of us want to scale El Capitan in a single afternoon or surf a 50-foot wave, but the exploits of these athletes become his argument for the satisfaction we can achieve in our own lives if we eschew multitasking in favor of profound concentration, giving ourselves permission to focus on a single task with the whole of our consciousness. And that’s the point, we needn’t risk our lives to achieve flow, but that feeling of mastery, the intensity that strips the rest of the world away and we enter a timeless state, that’s the chicken stock of happiness and fulfillment.

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17 comments

  1. Shawn

    For me, I know when I’ve been there when I realize #3 (Loss of reflective self-consciousness) has happened. When I ask myself what I was thinking going through that rock garden, for instance, all I can recall is a cranial hum. For me, I’m in the flow when the inner monologue disappears (although my friends and I have called it ‘snipering’ for 15 years or so when ‘in the zone’ became a cliché)

  2. Dave

    Interesting stuff. I would guess that is some portion of what gets me out into the woods that one night a week when the Old Men’s MTB Club leaves the family behind, and pretends we are not middle aged. The flow times are definitely the good times, but are very different than the endorphins of extended effort. I think I would note that flow can be achieved going uphill as well (at least off road), when a trail requires extraordinary focus and the planets all align.
    Thanks for trying to make sense of what we all do, and ease us towards our individual ‘why’ as well.

  3. Pat O'Brien

    I am not sure that I have experienced “the flow state” in cycling. I remember hard or exciting parts of my cycling that had some of the major flow state components you listed, just not all simultaneously.
    Although I no longer practice traditional archery, I remember many times that all these components came together in a single shot. You know the arrow will go right where you are looking. You watch it fly in slow motion. One of these shots resulted in the “Robin Hood” of archery when you shoot your arrow, we are talking aluminum arrows in this case, into the back of another arrow already in the bullseye of the target. My arrow stuck into the back of the other. I have the result hanging in my living room. The point I am trying to make is maybe this phenomenon is maybe not limited to extreme athletes, maybe it just exists in short intervals during the activity.

    1. Pat O'Brien

      Sorry, what I meant to write was that I wonder if the “flow state” occurs in brief periods during the activity. Do you come in and out of it as needed or willed during the activity, such as a fast descent? Can you train to turn it on and off, like an expert archer, during an activity? Is a world class time trial rider able to enter this state for long periods?

  4. Derek

    My answer if the course remains the same is yes. By remains the same I mean stays flat, stays uphill, winds through tight streets all the time, stays straight.
    My question is how do you change zones? Where you need to be above treeline is not the same as where you need to be in the trees. Rain? Snow? Heat? Touching the Void.


  5. Author
    Padraig

    Shawn: It’s funny how often we realize we were in flow after coming out by noting that we had, at least briefly, lost in the incessant I. Years ago I wrote of some efforts that I’d “gone so hard I couldn’t have told you my own name.” What I didn’t realize at the time was that I was writing about flow.

    Dave: Interesting that you should note the release of endorphins. You’ll definitely want to read “West of Jesus.” In it he details the bouillabaisse of neurochemicals that are released during flow. Endorphins are part of it, not separate from it. And you’re right, flow can be achieved when going uphill. That need for profound concentration in order to get everything right is what’s key.

    Pat O’Brien: Our memories are imperfect reflections of an experience. If you’re able to inventory two or three of its signifiers after an experience, it’s safe to say you had some degree of flow going. It’s important to note that flow is a spectrum of experience. At the low end there’s the flow you get when you get into a groove as you’re cleaning the kitchen. At the high end, there’s the flow of Dean Potter free soloing half dome where a mistake means death. And yes, flow can occur for brief periods of time. Consider surfing. My personal hunch is that you are a total flow junky; anybody who pulls off a Robin Hood knows how to get there, if by imperfect means. And because flow is autotelic, once you’ve gone there, you want to go there again. It’s a rule.

    Derek: The answer is actually simpler: If the challenge or difficulty remains constant, once you’re in flow, you’ll stay in flow. But how to get there? Entering the zone on command is the holy grail, the $64,000 question that a fair number of labs are trying to answer. The short answer is that we know that attacking something just a bit harder than your skill level (dropping down a double-black-diamond run when you’re more comfortable with black diamonds) and then easing back into terrain more suited to your skill set is helpful. I’ll address this more in the future.

    1. Pat O'Brien

      Padraig, you may be right about me. And cycling, which, for me, displaced archery as a activity, seems a really good place to chase flow.

  6. Scott L

    I’ve a couple of favorite quotes from the initial posts ’cause they deeply resonated..

    ‘once you’ve gone there, you want to go there again. It’s a rule’.

    and

    ‘important to note that flow is a spectrum of experience’.

    seems to me to be helpful to those wondering why we ride

  7. Robot

    Padraig left this book with me on his recent visit, and I sat down and read it immediately. The thing that resonated for me was the need to take some risks, not necessarily risks that might kill me, but rather the simple need to put something on the line, whether riding a bike or writing an essay. This strikes me as a better way to live, more open, more engaged, rather than rutted, which is where I tend, maybe where we all tend.

    An inspiring (and easy) read.

  8. MCH

    When I started riding sportbikes 25 years ago in the canyons of Nor CA, the concept of “instant zen” was talked about many motorcyclists. The idea was that when riding fast, you achieved a single-mindedness or intense state of concentration because you had to in order to survive. In other words, you achieved a zen state simply by twisting your wrist. In retrospect, we were talking about flow states.
    Its interesting to now know that chemistry was partially driving my passion for downhill skiing, cycling, motorcycles, and fast cars. I started riding road bikes over 30 years ago. My backyard at the time was the Berkeley/Oakland hills. One of my favorite descents was the Southgate entrance to Tilden park (yes, the infamous Strava segment). That descent on a bike felt eerily like the fast ski runs I enjoyed in Tahoe. While I now shudder to think of the risks I took back in the helmetless days of cycling (or skiing), damn if it didn’t feel fantastic! I now have a little more insight into why.

  9. Kurti_sc

    Patrick , I just got my first Robin Hood with trad archery about two weeks ago. Up until that shot, there was intense focus and imagery. And that particular shot was something else. I saw it all before it happened and it took forever for that arrow to nest in the other. I could even see the oscillation of the shaft. Something going on there.
    I have another poignant memory of riding my custom Kona many moons ago. The bikes I ride today I’m sure are much better, but the flow state I achieved on that bike makes it stand out as my all time fav. Book is on my Christmas list!

    1. Pat O'Brien

      Isn’t it something? I shot it with a Bruin take down recurve, no sights, shooting instinctively, with a glove on an indoor range during a weekly league. I was going to suggest to Padraig that Olympic archers, like Darryl Pace, or traditional archery masters like Byron Ferguson might be able to move in and out of the flow state, for brief periods, at will. I watched Pace shoot at the 1987 National Indoor championships in Las Vegas. Back of the line joking and talking to spectators, went to the line, five 10X shots, came back and starting talking again. Like a machine.

  10. SusanJane

    Creatives talk about this using different words. For them it is usually trance or flow. A period of time when the world falls away and there is only the medium and the process. Many famous artists have talked about their experiences. Weavers, potters, painters, but also dancers. The rush comes afterwards because at the time there is nothing else but the process. When I was free climbing I discovered shades of this flow. In my studio I consider it a blessing when a whisp connects me to the page for a brief moment when I am the creative act itself. My real comment here is this flow does not solely lie at the extremes. I’ve read here that there are those glorious moments on the bike where there are no boundaries, no divisions, no anything but being alive. There’s some incredible brain chemistry going on in that, too.

    1. Robot

      @ Full Monte and SusaJane – Kotler covers group flow in the book also, with specific reference to jazz musicians.

  11. Pat O'Brien

    This is from the foreword of the translation (1988) of the Tao te Ching by Stephen Mitchell as he examines the concept of inaction or doing/not doing.
    “A good athlete can enter a state of body awareness in which the right stroke or right movement happens by itself, effortlessly, without any interference of the conscious will. This is the paradigm for non-action: the purest and most effective form of action. The game plays the game; the poem writes the poem; we can’t tell the dancer from the dance.”

    From his translation: “Less and less do you need to force things, until finally you arrive at non-action. When nothing is done, nothing is left undone.”


  12. Author
    Padraig

    Kurti_sc: Time dilation is a big indicator that you’ve just been in flow. I laugh sometimes when I look back at pieces of work where I’ve described the world going slo-mo—oh, I was in flow. Stripping the details away so that all you see is your activity, not your interaction with gear, well that’s key to flow and why I still write about bikes and gear.

    SusanJane: That merging between world and self is reported only at the very highest end of flow; the true masters reach that, and it’s reported most often with extreme athletes because the stakes are so high. And yes, it isn’t just the domain of the extremes. As I wrote, it’s a spectrum. I’ve seen my son Philip enter it and he’s done things I didn’t think a three or four-year-old could do.

    I’m going to do another post in the near future in which I’ll talk about the neurochemistry behind flow. It’s surprising, doubly so for those of us who tend to live a pretty clean life thanks to cycling.

    Pat O’Brien: the Tao te Ching is a manual for flow. An owner’s guide.

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